Tribes and Worldviews: why I’m largely an outsider in today’s Progressive world


Step right up! That’s right folks, step right up!

Have we got a deal for you! Today only, come get yourself some worldview! And if you get one today, we’ll throw in some values, causes, and issues free! No need to wonder why these free extras come along with your worldview today, just know that you aren’t being charged extra for them, and that if you don’t take them, the people around you will question whether you really are one of them!

OK…that’s a little too overt and heavy upon your head, I think. No subtlety or nuance here, so far. Let’s take a different approach….



I grew up in a progressive world, at least in terms of education. I went to, for 13 years, a Quaker school full of LGBT-friendly activists concerned with social justice and peace, where values such as compassion, tolerance, and diversity were held in great esteem. It was a good education, compared with many other schools, and it gave me values that are overall good, and I liked the Quakers. Mostly.

Part of my family is rather conservative, traditionalist, and even reactionary. My father would throw around the ‘N’ word as casually as I would throw around “fuck” or “the,” and I once made a joke at dinner (when I was an adult, mind you) that I couldn’t eat the ham because I had become a Muslim. My father’s reaction was quite serious and memorable; “No son of mine is becoming a Muzzie.”

This was a few years after 9/11 (fuck…that was 17 years ago, today), and he definitely identified with the pro-Bush (“Dubya”) camp, politically, and wanted to kill all of the Muslims and turn the deserts of the Middle East to glass, as I remember. At the time, all I could think was “Jesus, dad, you really don’t know me; I’m an atheist. I find Islam as silly as your Christianity, and would be very unlikely to become one”. In my world, being a Muslim wasn’t a bad, evil, scary thing, it was just another thing to be. For him, Islam was the enemy.

Neither my father nor I were going to become Muslims, but for quite different reasons; he was afraid of, and therefore hated, Muslims because they were a threat to his idea of a Christian America, and he saw this enmity as defending his traditional view of what that America was and is supposed to be. I, on the other hand, was a member of the early atheist community,* and my opposition to Islam was a mostly rational and educated opposition, rather than an emotional and jingoistic reaction to the presence of an alien religion attacking my tribe.

As the culture wars started to become further defined in the years that followed 9/11, how people saw Muslims became attached to a political identity. People on the political Right, the conservative and traditionalist people who are overwhelmingly Christian and often evangelical (think of the Battle Cry events, and similar proto-nationalist, Christian, and politically conservative events like it, that dominated the Bush years), started to oppose Islam, Mosques, and Muslims encroaching upon American culture and space. The rhetoric was of an invading culture, and the Right was opposed to it vehemently

On the other end of the spectrum, the Left started to take the opposite strategy, and started to defend Islam, and welcome the cultural change that involved more Muslims being welcomed into communities. The values here are the same as those I was raised with in my Quaker school upbringing; compassion, tolerance, and diversity. And, in at least one respect, these values are ones I share; I support the rights of Muslims to live in our culture just as much as I support Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, or Pagans. That is, I recognize all of their rights to exist, legally, while I would very much prefer that they all become rationalists and atheists, because ultimately I think religion is not worth our time, as humans, and we should just leave all that behind as the toys of our species’ childhood.

These signs are very common in progressive neighborhoods, in many parts of the United States

And this is where the problem begins, for me. The world I live within, specifically West Philadelphia, is one dominated by political Leftism, tolerance, compassion, and diversity. There is a strong sense of wanting to welcome people to their communities, whether they share their religious or ethnic backgrounds, where more conservative areas would be more likely to feel uncomfortable with people of color or minority religious traditions moving down the street.

This is just one of the many particular examples of how the differences in political worldview has real world consequences on how we feel about other people and their ideas, and usually you can tell someone’s political identity by how they would think about Muslims; either they are not comfortable or tolerant of them being neighbors, or they are welcoming. Because conclusions, opinions, and support for issues is largely an indicator of one’s identity or inclusion in a worldview, or the tribes which hold such worldviews.

But what happens when you disagree? What happens when you, for example, are uncomfortable with Muslims? Not because their religion is different from yours, but because they are part of a religion that has many problematic beliefs and traditions which are at odds with your values? What if you are uncomfortable with Muslims in the same way you are uncomfortable with people who still practice Catholicism, despite the fact that it has been shown, again and again, that the Catholic church is a criminal organization?

Well, that’s intolerance, right? It’s at odds with one of the fundamental progressive values, and it is too much like the intolerance, fear, and hate coming from the Right of the political spectrum. In other words, it doesn’t fit in with the worldview of most progressive people, so holding such opinions places you in a precarious position, politically and culturally.

Where does that leave you?


The Center

The problem with the tribalistic nature of worldviews and the cultures they create is that if you don’t belong in one place, you must belong somewhere else. For many skeptics, atheists, and other people who attempt to use rationality as the framework for making decisions, this leaves them in some middle ground, the political “center,” and you are stuck next to Sam Harris.

Now, don’t get me wrong; Sam Harris has some really interesting things to say about metaethics, and I am on board with how he talks about morality with his analogy of landscapes. When I first read The Moral Landscape, I found a strong argument that was very similar to how I viewed the problem of morality in a world arguing over whether morality was absolute, relative, or objective (no, objective and absolute are NOT the same thing, here). I recommend the book for anyone interested in the subject of ethics.

In fact, the distinctions between those who accept some authoritative moral framework (the Christian Right, for example), those who accept a relative framework wherein we need to tolerate different views are valid (the Progressive Left, for example) is a fair analogy for the Left/Right worldview split I was talking about above in some ways. And if one does not find either satisfactory or convincing, one is left with having to find an alternative. In the case of Sam Harris and myself, that takes the form of objective morality. In fact, watch Matt Dillahunty’s video (below) where he argues for the superiority of a secular (and in his case, objective) morality. Like Sam Harris, Matt and I are mostly eye-to-eye here, and it is a nuanced, middle, position between two views on morality I find equally problematic.



Just like how we view Muslims in America, how we view morality is largely attached to the political and cultural worldview we identify with. All too often I run into Leftists (which I largely am) who become infuriated or offended if I suggest that, for example, some cultures, religious views, or moral values are better than others. To ask a progressive-minded person if they thought that (for example) Islam might be a more problematic religious worldview than Buddhism, to answer yes would be tantamount to seem to agree with the “racist” and “intolerant” Right, and to be seen as having something in common with a political/cultural worldview they are opposed to. They might ultimately agree, but the suggestion is one met with resistance, in most cases.

This is why people like Sam Harris are seen as racist and conservative to people on the Left, and it is why Sam Harris will never think of himself as a Leftist, but rather a “classical liberal” (a term that means, for the Left, he’s actually just another racist and intolerant right winger). There is a disconnect on values, here, which makes Sam Harris not seem doctrinally pure enough to be part of the Leftist tribe, even where Sam Harris largely is a progressive (to be fair, he is resistant to what he calls “identity politics, which would place him more in the center, but he’s much closer to a progressive than a Republican and definitely not a Trump supporter). All it takes is to be critical in a way that alienates him from progressives for them to dismiss him as a racist and conservative, and thus ignored and ostracized by most people on the Left. Tribalism at work.

But these issues are not digital; One is not either completely accepting of Islam, Muslims, and all the cultural, historical, and ideological baggage that can be attached to those sets of worldviews or intolerant and hateful of them. There are nuances here, and in an age of Twitter, soundbites, and knee-jerk reactions to not being confused for the other side of whatever political spectrum you identify with, you are wise to be careful about expressing an opinion that doesn’t fit in with the worldview of those in your tribe. Better to stick to the party line, and keep up appearances.

It would not go over well, in a conversation in the back courtyard of Dahlak where everyone is an anarchist, progressive democrat, or radical waiting for the revolution to finally come, if you were to suggest that 9/11 happened (even if only in part) due to genuinely held religious beliefs consistent with a fair reading of the Koran and the Hadith. No, it was definitely American foreign policy, military action, and colonialism.  And this isn’t to say that people all over the world don’t have legitimate political grievances against the United States for decades of bad behavior which might cause people to want to retaliate militarily and with terrorism. But it is simultaneously true that Islam is a great ideological tool to implement such actions, and one could get from Koran to terrorism without any need for political grievances as an intermediary.

Yes, that last paragraph was inspired by a real conversation I had in exactly that space.  And yes, my interlocutor insisted that religion could have had nothing to do with 9/11, because Islam is a religion of peace, and it would be intolerant and racist to imply that Islam might be violent and dangerous as an ideology. He stuck to his guns, ran the party line, and maintained consistency with his worldview which values of compassion, tolerance, and diversity. Just not truth. It’s not like the guy ever read the Koran or studied the history of Islam, or anything, but he knew that conservative jingoists hate Islam and he’s not like them, so he has to accept Muslims as a non-problematic addition to the culture in which he lives, without sufficient criticism.

The Left is too afraid to be critical of religious and spiritual beliefs, where criticism is not only valid, but perhaps necessary.


Where do I belong?

My issue, here, is that I’m largely a progressive. If you sat me down with a bunch of Social Justice advocates who wanted a tolerant and diverse political and cultural society, I would get along with them and agree on many things, but I’d be at odds with them on some others. And I get myself in trouble when I disagree with some issue or position. Many rationalist and secular people find themselves in this position. I see people around me, politically, defending religious nonsense and even genuinely believing in paganism, tarot, or psychics. More and more, recently, I hear people talking about magic, reiki, and nature spirits in my progressive circles, and it’s becoming worrying to my skeptical heart and mind.

In some sense, I get it; it’s a reaction to the authoritarian and patriarchal religious identities of conservatives. Rather than a vengeful and authoritarian Jesus, we have the nature loving and progressive gods and goddesses of pagan lore (let’s ignore the fact that Islam’s Allah is a lot more like Yahweh/Jesus than those pagan artsy spirits). It fits with the political and cultural worldview better, but it does not fit my worldview at all. I’m left with the choice of a tribe who accepts that God is judging you or one that believes crystals or healing hands on your body might be able to heal cancer.

They are both laughably absurd, and I will not accept them as legitimate. I do recognize that they are equally protected under the law (at least in theory), so I definitely am closer to the Left than the Right here in terms of tolerating religious beliefs, where the right tends to defend the privileged status of Christianity, but it’s hardly an association I’m happy about.

Again, it all boils down to skepticism for me. We need to be able to not only challenge particular issues, beliefs, and people within our tribes and worldviews, but we need to be able to question the height of the pedestal we place our values upon. Values are good to have, but they are not absolute.

The Left has values, the right has values, everyone has values. And whether they are authority, purity, compassion, tolerance, diversity, etc, we all have these values to greater and lesser extents. In short, we value them to differing degrees. They are not worthy of worship or unquestionable, they are guidelines at best. Tolerance is a good value, but what are you tolerating, and why? How much do you know about the thing you are tolerating, and would there be a point where you would stop tolerating it?

Muslims are people. As such, they deserve legal protection, a willingness to hear their concerns and experiences, and the freedom to live their lives as they want to so long as they are not harming others. But we also need to be aware that there are many terrifying and dangerous ideas that are contained within the many ideologies called “Islam,” and insofar as people have those beliefs, their actions will be compelled accordingly. And similar to how many Christians oppose women’s right to choose how to live their lives and make decisions, gay rights, and many other progressive issues, Islam is no friend to many of those things in similar ways. We need to be as wary, as Progressives, of Islam as we are of Christianity.

The fact that Islam does not currently have political power here is a fair point, but if we actually seek to give Islam a seat at the cultural table, we need to be aware that if Muslims were to earn their legal right to that political power, the ideas they bring with them would be as problematic as those of Christianity or any other religion.

And if the Left, with it’s tolerance and practices of paganism, new age religion, Buddhism and all the other ideas that contain problematic views about reality, continues to not be skeptical about these things, then we will continue to live in a world where we’re forced to choose between anti-gay Jesus and vaccine-avoiding Progressive morons who will endanger us all by rejection of medicine, science, and reason.

I’ll end with an old favorite video, because it’s still relevant today.


More skeptical, rational, progressives please.



*this may have been before the various books were written and the community started to gain some traction, but my memory is not clear enough to remember precisely when this was. My guess is around 2005

Ramadan at work

Islam2So, I work for Muslims.

Some people I know would wonder how I could do so (especially since I wrote this), if they were all Islamophobic and such, but it does not bother me.  I really don’t mind working for this Muslim family any more than working for Christians, Jews, or Hindus would bother me.  They are just people, who are from Syria, and who practice Islam.  From my perspective, it’s not much different than working for people, from Italy, who practice Christianity.  They are both silly religions with checkered pasts.

In the several months I have worked there, only once or twice has the issue of religion come up, and never in a proselytizing way.  They are fairly non-political (they have not expressed any strong opinions about what is going on in Syria right now, except to say that America should not be involved, and rarely talk about it at all as far as I know), they seem to support the concept of the separation of religion and government (their comments about groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood seems to indicate that religion should be separate from political and business decisions), and their two sons seem just as American-acculturated as any kids in the neighborhood.  They are not unlike most America citizens; they came here, love it here, and they have a cultural background they brought with them.  It just happens that theirs is a minority culture and religious perspective in America.

Hell, so is mine.

They are relatively observant Muslims.  They pray at least a couple time a day, that I see, in the back office (Muslims are supposed to pray five times a day, according to one of the five pillars of Islam).  They can be heard singing Arabic songs when in a good mood, they sometimes sit and read from the Koran when business is slower, and, well, recently it has become more obvious.

Ramadan feast
Ramadan feast

You see, recently Ramadan started and this has given me a peek into the reality that there is some cultural distance between us which was not as obvious before, but that distance has given me some perspective.  Watching them get more irritable as the day goes on (due to being hungry, thirsty, etc as they fast during daylight hours, which is longer during the summer) and watching the ritual of the sundown feast shows me, up close, how much these people are like everyone else I know from my mostly Christian family background.  Because while there is distance, culturally, between us, this distance is no so far as to make them alien.  In fact, they are so much like the Catholics on my father’s side of my family (many of whom dislike Islam greatly, for political reasons) in that the way they approach ritual and holy times is automatic and interwoven into their routine.

Have you even talked to a (moderately) practicing Catholic about why they do their daily or periodic rituals? Most of the Catholics I know don’t believe all the doctrines.  Hell, they likely don’t even know what most of the doctrine is, as I have had to explain concepts such as the Nicene Creed and other concepts to them, especially in historical context.  Ask a Catholic about the Council of Nicaea some time, and observe the blank stare you will probably get in return.  But when it comes to ritual, they’ve got it down.  There is a sort of sacred time and space and a set of behavior which provides order, meaning, and ‘right’ feelings at certain times.  When there is a baby, there is a baptism.  When they enter a church, they become serious and reverent where before they seem to not care about such reverence.  There is a seeming difference between everyday life and Catholic life, as observed from the outside.

What I have been observing recently is much the same at work.  Ramadan seems to be a sacred time, perhaps somewhat like how Lent is for Catholics, and it seemingly pulls them into a different space of awareness, because they have to fast during daylight which is a constant reminder.  I have not asked them much about it, mostly because they have been a little irritable (being hungry and all) but I suspect that following Ramadan for them is as natural as celebrating Christmas, baptizing one’s child, etc is for Christians.  I suspect that they don’t really think about why they do it, just like many Christians.  It’s just what you do, if you’re  Muslim.

There are other employees there who are Muslims as well.  When sundown comes, they eat with the family for the evening meal.  I have not been invited to join them.  Granted, I am not really hungry because I ate already, not being a practicing Muslim and all,  but I find it interesting that it does not even seem relevant to them.  They don’t even seem aware that this is happening.  As one of the few non-Muslims who works there, I am different.  I am an outsider.  I am kafir.  I don’t feel ostracized or discriminated against (that is, I don’t really care) but it highlights the role of cultural tradition and ritual to simultaneously pull together the in-group and to otherize the out-group.

Religion is not all bad.  However, one of its strengths, creating cultural bonds, has a complimentary function of clarifying cultural lines of division.  Religion fosters tribalism.  Thus, it’s only a strength to bring communities together for those in the community.

This is generally true, for all sorts of cultural traditions, rituals, or ideas.  Monogamy creates bonds within a coupling that others cannot be a part of, by definition.  There are levels of intimacy in all relationships, even in polyamory, which divide those inside and those outside the tribe, family, etc.  Pride of one’s national heritage, as in “I’m proud to be an American” serve the same function.  They pull together a group, but alienates at the same time.

Kirk: “Spock, you want to know something? Everybody’s Human.” Spock: “I find that remark… insulting.”
Kirk: “Spock, you want to know something? Everybody’s Human.”
Spock: “I find that remark… insulting.”

It’s quite unavoidable.  You can try to universalize the message, but this is only a temporary fix.  Define the in-group as humanity and if/when we make contact with alien sentient life, the other is them (I’ve been watching Babylon 5 again…).  It’s a tough knot to untie, and I am not sure there is a solution.  Because having groups of people who vary in importance to us, hierarchical or not, is a logistical and practical solution to only having so much time and energy to spend.  It’s nice to have people close to you, intimate with you, and who you can call family.  But the other side of this is the necessary alienation of others, especially those with whom we share few values.  Liberals, conservative; Democrats, Republicans; Capitalists, Socialists, Communists, Anarchists, etc.  There are people who are, in some way, ‘other’ to you.  Religion, tradition, ritual, and nationalism all use this aspect of human behavior to its simultaneous advantage and disadvantage.

And yes, it will be an improvement if and when humanity outgrows religion, nationalism, etc.  But I doubt that will solve the fundamental problem.  Personally, I’m not sure there is a solution.  I’m not writing this to say we should try to give up the concept of culture, and to transcend culture, because that would just create a new culture.  I’m writing this because we should all be aware of this phenomenon.  And those others who will not understand it are just stupid and evil, or something.  But we, the enlightened, will understand it.  Or something.

As for my employers and this Ramadan thing, I will say that the evening feast usually looks quite delicious.  Perhaps they are trying to convert me with the promise of delicious food.  It’s not working, alas.  Well, if the promise of 72 virgins (or raisins, whatever) won’t do it, food won’t do it, then I guess they are just going to have to verify their claims rationally and empirically.  Yeah, somehow philosophy wins over food and sex for me.  Sorry, religion.

Provisionality, Offense, and Conviction

I was just reading a short post by Tristan D. Vick about the difference between beliefs and assumptions, and it got me thinking about conviction and offense.

Last week, Ginny and I were talking about offense.  I’m not easily offended, and we were talking about why that is.  Part of the reason, I concluded, is that I don’t have many things I find to be sacred; I don’t have ideas which are beyond criticism, unavailable for investigation, or held with great conviction.  I am bereft of sacred cows to tip over, or something.

My beliefs, accepted facts, and interpretations—in short my worldview—is tentative and provisional, just as Tristan says about his beliefs.  Thus, it’s hard to find ways to offend me because it would imply that some harm is being done to me to challenge or question something I believe.  Since I have already questioned my beliefs (ideally, anyway) on my own, someone else challenging them is redundant and not harmful.  Thus and form of poking fun, mocking, or calling my ideas stupid or silly in itself cannot offend me.  I can be annoyed by poor attempts at criticism, but I cannot be offended by things which are not held with conviction.

So when I see people in the streets of Benghazi, Egypt, or elsewhere protesting the insult to their religion, I have trouble sympathizing with the offense they take.  I can’t sympathize with having a sacred belief which cannot be mocked, questioned, or even illustrated.  I find the idea that offense is taken by such mild acts as making a shitty video, drawing a picture of some guy who is believed to be a prophet, or simply saying that a set of beliefs is silly or unjustified as, well, offensive.

That is, if there is anything sacred to me, it is the freedom of expression, thought, and therefore of criticism.  My ideal that ideas are subject to analysis and discussion is an idea which I don’t think I could be convinced out of.  I am convicted to the idea of freedom of expression, and so the only way to offend me would be to protest such freedoms based on an idea or set of ideas.

And for someone to point of an inconsistency here; to say that I should hold the ideal of freedom of expression provisionally, seems to commit the same error as those who try to criticize what is sometimes called scientism, but which I think is better thought of as consistency in application of skepticism.  That is, there must be some ground upon which we found other ideas and conclusions.  For example, if we don’t accept that our senses are capable of giving us reliable (although not infallible) information, we cannot claim certainty about anything.  If we don’t have some methodological basis for testing ideas (such as skepticism/empiricism), then we cannot test the veracity of hypotheses with any reliability.  If we do not allow free expression free reign to all subjects, then we have no real (legal) freedom to believe what we want, because it becomes to easy to allow bias to inform which ideas are given privilege.

But most importantly, the only means to question the idea of free expression is with free expression.  It is a self-founding idea, or a meta-value.

One of my favorite shirts

Finding offense in criticism, whether of ideas you hold or which are held by others, is a sign of placing value on the wrong thing.  There is no good reason to accommodate sets of ideas over the ability to question those ideas.  The meta-value of our world, our species, and of all sentient beings should be the freedom of expression of all ideas.  Privileging a set of ideas, even if those ideas are right, is absurd.  True ideas will survive the light of criticism, and do not need sanctions to survive.  The truth, as Kosh once said, points to itself.

I have no fear of my ideas being questioned, mocked, etc.  If they are good ideas, they will survive.  If they are bad ideas, they will be replaced by argumentation whether in the form of polite discussion or mockery.  The question I have for people who are easily offended, for their own sake or the sake of others, is where your values are?  You can be sympathetic with the hurt feelings people have about having their ideas mocked, but at the end of the day if their ideas cannot survive that mockery, or even polite questioning, then perhaps that sympathy needs to be understood to be about their feelings, not their ideas.

There is a point when we have to take responsibility for our ideas, rather than coddle them.  Ideas are not people, and they cannot be injured.  Ideas are either good (justified) or not (unjustified).  And if you are hurt because your ideas are mocked, then you are either protecting an unjustified idea or one that does not need protection.

Just like gods (if they are to exist), ideas cannot be harmed by our criticism,  mockery, or polite disagreement.  There is no reason to protect such ideas or beings, except to protect the fact that they are bad ideas and free expression might expose such a weakness.

Oh!  That explains it now, doesn’t it?


I am no Islamophobe, I am anti-Islam

There has been a bit in the news over the last week or so about Islam.  There was an incident in London recently where a planned meeting was cancelled due to threats by a Moslem with a camera phone, for example (I’m mobile, otherwise I would link that story).  And today there is some talk about what Karen Armstrong has said about Islam, one example can be found at Jerry Coyne’s blog website.

A word which is often used in such conversations is Islamophobia.  It has been a politically charged word for years now, especially after 9/11, and pops up again with the perpetuation of Islam in the news, especially in the context of violence, oppression of women, and issues surrounding sharia law and secular laws.

A few years ago, for example, the lovely man that is Rick Santorum (gag) came to speak at the University of Pennsylvania (at the Hillel building, if I remember correctly) during some “Islamophobia week” (or something like that) in order to speak about the horrors of Islam and the wonderful alternative of the truly peaceful and wonderful Christianity.

(I threw up a little in my mouth while I typed that)

During the Q&A, I challenged Santorum on this distinction by pointing out that Jeebus (I may have actually said “Jesus” as to not confuse him) and Allah were both the God of Abraham, and by pointing out that the god of Islam was so awful, he was ignoring not only that it is the same basic god concept as JHWH/Jesus, but much of the Bible demonstrates the equality of atrocity of his own god.  How could he justify the harsh criticism of Islam given the relatedness to his own god and similar attrocities in his own scripture?

Let’s just say that this question was not received well by Mr. Santorum.  He became visibly flustered and angry and both challenged me to argue such a “ridiculous” case while not really allowing me to do so nor answer the question at all.  He rejected the premise of the question and called me an idiot or something similar  It was pretty much what I expected.

So, back to Islamophobia.

See, I don’t think this is the right word, at least not from my point of view.  I am not afraid of Islam.  I am concerned what Islam may do if it is allowed to influence policy and law in the West (its influence in the Middle East and elsewhere is already problematic).  But I am not afraid of the religion nor its adherents.

What I have is an extreme dislike of Islam, bordering on hate.  I find it an ignorance-perpetuating, women-oppressing (men-oppressing, as well), violence-causing, and ultimately dangerous ideology.  I hate what it has done to much of the world, creating a repressive and restrictive way of life for millions of people.

It is a faith, much like Christianity, which asks people in the age of technology and science to believe ancient superstition on pain of not mere death, which is infinitely more humane than that which it does offer, but on pain of eternal torture.  It is a disgusting and anti-human (anti-life!) ideology not worthy of our reverence nor our tolerance.

Yes, people have the right to be Moslems.  And rather than hate them I feel pity for them.  It too often makes women into cattle, men into misogynists, and all of us into slaves–Islam means ‘submission’ after all.

So no, Islamophobia is not the right word.  We should not fear Islam, we should see it as our enemy.  Not in the way that we make war with Moslems (the Ummah), but in the way that we don’t allow its doctrines, superstitions, or laws creep any closer to the rest of the world.  The people under Allah’s metaphorical thumb are victims, and those who seek to expand Islam are the most affected by this virus.

I am anti-Islam. I fear it not, so I am no Islamophobe.

Tomorrow is Blasphemy Rights Day!

That’s right, folks, not only do we have the right to be blasphemous, but there is a day set aside to have our fellow heathens (and those freedom loving believers who feel like blaspheming others’ ideas) express their inner blasphemer.

For those of you who don’t remember, or who were not paying attention way back in the early days of the atheist movement, it was September 30th 2005 when those now-famous cartoons were published in Denmark.  You know, the ones that made all the Muslim leaders laugh and go on with their lives…or to protest their publication which led to violence and ultimately to more than a hundred dead.  Same difference.

The fact is that many of the cartoons were not offensive at all.  Most were not funny.  But because some Muslims believed that the very attempt to try and depict Muhammad (the prophet guy, not just any Muhammad of which there are many tens of thousands).

The event brought lots of attention, world-wide, to this issue.  The atheist community responded by many people stepping up and advocating for people to express their right to blaspheme whatever they want.  There was PZ’s issue with a cracker, many campus organizations responded with chalk drawings of Muhammad or blasphemous messages of all kinds, and many individuals have, of course, stepped up in their own ways.

That's me!

And I, of course, will take part.  I have one of my favorite shirts ready to wear tomorrow, and I inevitably will have people ask me if I’m Muslim…because people are stupid and ignorant.  And while it may be too late for you to get your own shirt, I urge you to find a way to express yourself in some blasphemous way tomorrow.  For example, one Halloween several years ago I dressed up as the crucified Christ, with wrist wounds and all, carrying a cross I had made around with me even to a Halloween party.  I wish I had pictures of that.  Perhaps I will have to re-create that wonderfulness in a Halloween to come.

That’s like in a month, right? Where do I have some wood….

Remember, blasphemy is a victimless crime.  So if you feel bad about hurting someone’s feelings, just remember think “What would Shaun do” and then do it anyway…because people have no right to expect non-believers to follow any rules set by religious traditions.  And if you are still caught up in this respect thing, remember that if you don’t actually believe a thing is true, right, wrong (or whatever) you don’t actually respect it.  You may respect someone’s right to something, but that is not the same thing.  So, celebrate the fact that you actually can blaspheme (assuming you are not in one of the many countries where you cannot) and express yourself.

Oh, I almost forgot about this song which persistently gets stuck in my head.  Your welcome.

Muslim humanity prevents Islamic violence

I just finished watching this discussion between Christopher Hitchens and Tariq Ramadan about whether Islam is a religion of peace:

Now, there is nothing particularly new about this discussion, or the points made therein.  In fact, to follow this post, you really don’t need to watch it.  But, do watch it if you are interested in the issues involved.

One of the themes in this discussion is one which I see come up often.  When we talk about whether a religion–Islam or otherwise–is one of peace or not, this point is raised that the majority of the faithful are NOT terrorists, militants, or remotely violent themselves.  The violence comes from the extremes, the fringe, who are not representative of the vast majority of the religious community.

I will leave aside Sam Harris’ point that even if they are not doing the violence themselves, the moderates/mainstream believers lend shelter for those who do.  While I agree with this idea essentially, I am not interested in this point at the moment.

Instead, I want to talk about a related point.  Throughout the discussion, Tariq Ramadan pointed out that people can take the text (the Koran, in this case), and read it in ways that will compel them to violence.  And at the same time, most Muslims do not read it this way, nor do they live their lives around violence or terrorism. That is, even if there are parts of the texts that can be read as a motivation for violence, the fact is that most people don’t live that way as Muslims.

And at one point, he compared it to the fact that while the United States has a secular founding document, George W. Bush was still able to use religious rhetoric as President, including rhetoric used towards initiating war with Iraq.  And, in fact, presidents continually use religious rhetoric, even if the Constitution is a secular document.  Supposedly, the point is that even if the text says one thing (whether it is secularism or violence), the practical fact is that people can be representatives of that document and not necessarily reflect that secularism or call for violence.   There is a disconnection between the text and behavior.

An interesting point, but it compels me to wonder how we are to define a religious believer (or representative of the Constitution of the United States), in light of this.  Is it enough to believe in Allah, Muhammad as his Prophet, etc in order to be a Muslim?  Is it enough just to live in an Islamic culture and follow the daily rituals and where the right clothes? Is it enough just to have Muslim parents?

Similarly, is it enough to be elected president? That is, is just being in the position, holding the title, sufficient to actually be a representative of the Constitution which they claim to represent?

In a practical sense, it probably is enough.  And I don’t want to get too mired in the minutia involved in this question now.   But is there a line which, upon crossing it, one can no longer be considered a representative? Is a person who was raised Catholic, attends Mass on rare Sundays, is for a woman’s choice to abort, doesn’t really believe in the Trinity, does not care much for the Pope (the one in Rome), and who has not confessed his “sins” to a priest in years a Roman Catholic?

And if the Koran really does ask you to kill apostates, convert the world to Islam, etc and you don’t do so, then are you really a Muslim?

Where is the line? A point worthy of consideration, but I shall leave it aside for now.

But back to Tariq Ramadan.  His point that there is a distinction between the text and the behavior of adherents is important, if not new, and I do think it gives us pause in such discussion to consider its ramifications.   Ultimately, however, I don’t think it makes the point that Ramadan may intend, which seems to be that the text is not enough; that we need to look at the practical truth of how those who claim to represent those texts actually live.  The people are the body of the religion, and how they behave is, in many important respects, the definition of the religion.  But this is not the whole story.

I think Ramadan’s point does not prove that Islam is not violent any more than George W. Bush’s religious rhetoric proves that the United States is a Christian nation.  Muslims not acting violently, despite the violence called for in the Koran, is comparable to the fact that politicians in the U.S. may be crossing a line in endorsing their religious perspectives as representatives of a secular document.  What this seems to indicate is that people are capable of finding themselves in positions where they are supposed to represent a constitution or sacred text and do so imperfectly.  That is, they veer away from the text in such ways that displays their humanity (and other influence on them from their culture), and how such things can influence how religions and political climates change in practice from their sources.

The practice of one’s religion is a combination of their sacred text (interpreted by theologians and other intellectuals) and the secular and/or alternative religious influences that permeate their culture.  And where they are not acting upon the text and its commands (whether violence or something else), this demonstrates not that the religion is not in fact violent, but that their behavior is informed by other things.  Their humanity prevents them from acting on the violent parts of the text (whether for distaste for it or, perhaps more likely, their ignorance of it), and since most people do this, the religion itself begins to look non-violent based upon this behavior.

Further, those intellectuals and more liberal theologians who read the Koran differently are, perhaps, not being honest with the history and source of Islam, whose history is rife with violence.  It was Mohammad himself who led an invasion of Mecca, which led to subsequent invasions in the name of spreading Islam (both as a religion and political force).  The Koran is pretty clear that the goal of the faith is to convert the world.  One has to explain this or reinterpret it to mean something else to not see the inherent violence contained within.

So where are these intellectuals within the Islamic world finding this lack of essential violence in Islam?  How are they finding the peaceful, intellectual, and modern view of Islam?  Well, the same way that most (liberal) Christian intellectuals find the roots of peace, social justice, and acceptance of homosexuality within the Bible and the Christian tradition. They ignore the atrocities, reinterpret many others, and focus of the parts that are helpful to their worldview.

(and the conservatives do the same, but with a focus on different parts).

It is as I (and many others) have argued before; liberal theologians accomplish their liberal views by being inconsistent with the entire text.   By making decisions with their educated perspective, which is often the result of interaction with ideas outside of their sacred text, they reveal the secular source of their peaceful and open attitude towards alternative ideas and beliefs.  They are not being peaceful and sophisticated because of the religious texts themselves, but because of their humanity which they project onto their interpretations of those texts.  And because there are a few occasions where the text does inspire more modern and liberal values, they highlight these verses and put to the side the ones which display the violence which is part of that tradition and faith.

So, why are the vast majority of religious people generally tolerant, non-violent, and moderate? Well, because they either don’t know what the text says, don’t agree with a lot of it, or because as human beings they don’t literally take the whole text (and only that text) as the inspiration for how to live their lives.  And those that do try to live their lives based upon that text become fundamentalists.  They become the fringe, because this behavior pattern of taking one source very seriously is rare in human behavior.

But the more seriously they take the text, the more radical and insane they seem to the mainstream.  And since the text is the source of the religious beliefs of both fundamentalists and moderates, without which those crazy notions of violence, evangelism, etc would not as easily exist, would it not be better to just view the text as something to not revere?

Where the text says things we agree with, we merely acknowledge that we agree with the text there.  Where we find it out-dated and crazy, we admit that.  But this would imply that the text is imperfect, and the theological notions which derive only from those texts (whether it be Muhammad as being the last prophet or Jesus being God who dies for our sins) should be discarded.

But the moderates hold onto those notions anyway.  While they only accept some of the text (again, out of ignorance or distaste), they still accept some of it despite their being no other source for supporting the ideas and the utter insanity of them.

Again, how are these people really representatives of the text, and why should we respect their beliefs just because they are only partially nutty?  Just because most Muslims, Christians, and Jews are not acting on the calls for violence that their texts clearly ask of them, how does that not make the religion itself non-violent?  Following directions poorly does not change the nature of the directions.

Draw Muhammad Day

So, to day is draw Muhammad day.  It’s a silly sort of thing, actually.  It really does not even deserve the merit of being commented on.  The fact that some people’s lives are at risk because many Muslims don’t agree makes it worthy of comment.

So, here’s a picture of me wearing a shirt that I like.

He really looked exactly like that.

See, I don’t have any respect for Islam.  Nor do I have respect for Christianity of Judaism, but at least I can draw silly pictures of their gods and/or prophets.

And, for the record, it isn’t religion per se that I have the issue with, but the concept of faith, the inability to criticize beliefs, and so forth that I am so annoyed by.  Religion just tends to be the carrier of such things.  So, Muslims, get over yourselves.  We don’t have to play by your rules, and we will not be scared into submission (what Islam means) nor silence.

Happy day, everyone!

(And if I end up dead, you’ll know why)

Blasphemy laws threaten our freedom

Oh noes! Now the Moslems will be after me!
Oh noes! Now the Moslems will be after me!

I don’t know if any of you have been following the recent legislation in Ireland.  I have been reading about the proposed Blapshemy Laws for a few days now, and am concerned.  For those of you who would like to catch up, here’s a resource for you.

Basically, it may become illegal to criticize people’s religious beliefs.

The proposed law states the following:

  1. A person who publishes or utters blasphemous matter shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable upon conviction on indictment to a fine not exceeding €100,000.
  2. For the purposes of this section, a person publishes or utters blasphemous matter if (a) he or she publishes or utters matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion, and (b) he or she intends, by the publication or utterance of the matter concerned, to cause such outrage.
  3. It shall be a defence to proceedings for an offence under this section for the defendant to prove that a reasonable person would find genuine literary, artistic, political, scientific, or academic value in the matter to which the offence relates.

Now, the second part of this mentions that the problem is outrage being caused by people who become upset by comments, short films, or cartoons.  Why the hell would anyone riot over such things? And why are the Irish trying to protect people who would? The problem here is religious people, here primarily Moslems, reacting violently because of criticism, not the criticism itself.  It makes perfect sense to riot because someone has implied that your religion is violent, right?

There have been a number of movements in Europe that have moved towards legislating protections for religion in the last few years.  The acceptance of sharia in the UK is one such concession.  Issues concerning whether women can wear burqas in their identification pictures is another (although the French have not sided with accomodation, at least). What is going on here?

Part of what is happening is that Moslems are moving into Europe and the United States in significant numbers.  When I lived in West Philadelphia for a few years, I lived a few blocks away from two mosques and saw women in their burqas quite frequently.  When people move into a place, they bring their culture with them.  That will inevitably involve their concepts of law, morality, and religion.

Now, there are many points of sharia law that differ from the laws of the various nations that Moslems are moving into.  And the openness and liberalism of these nations–places like Belgium, the Netherlands, etc–mean that they will try to accommodate the people that live there.  This, to a certain extent, is admirable.  The willingness to open yourself up to different cultures can lead to a better understanding of one-another and it is at the heart of what a free society is all about.

However, there is a point where in doing so you give up on what that liberalism and tolerance are meant to protect.  Pat Condell says it best, perhaps:

(Also see this one (Ban the burka) and this one (Sharia in the UK))

I agree with Pat Condell here.  Criticism is essential.  We cannot make it a law that you cannot criticize religion.  What will come of speech such as Pat Condell’s if Blasphemy laws are passed? What will happen to legitimate criticism of religion (or any other beliefs) if we are not allowed to say anything that may hurt someone’s feelings?

Religion cannot continue to get a free pass on criticism, as it has enjoyed for so long.  You can criticize someone’s movie tastes, belief in UFOs, but don’t criticize Islam or Christianity!  You might hurt someone’s feelings if you do that.  There is no reason to give religious beliefs a free pass here.

It can only be the height of insecurity that would require religious views to be protected behind walls of legislation.  We must challenge ourselves.  And those that will not, we must allow others to challenge them.  We must force those who make claims about the universe to support their ideas and allow skeptics and other dissenters to criticize their views as they merit.

I simply cannot understand what the Dail in Ireland is thinking.  I hope that it will not pass the Seanad.  And if it does, I hope that some will come out and test this law with blasphemy as loud as one can say it.  I hope that the continuing undue respect, especialy to Islam in many parts of Europe, does not continue.  I hope that people of reason will not be silenced by the fear that is projected by the faithful who feel the need to protect themselves from harsh words or criticism.